I was surprised to find while shooting one of my public television episodes in South Korea last week that the locals seemed much less concerned about a war with the North than my friends in the States.
Each day I received an e-mail from someone back home worrying that I was in Seoul while so many sabers were rattling following the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship by a North Korean submarine. In conversations with locals, I learned most South Koreans take the tension with their neighbor to the north in stride.
South Koreans are too busy working to fret over a possible war, even though North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into “a fiery sea” if the South insisted on blasting propaganda messages via loudspeakers into the North at the 39th Parallel where the two countries are at 24/7 face-off.
South Korea is a country that rebuilt itself more than once, and companies whose products were once considered sub-standard with brand names including KIA, Hyundai, LG, and Samsung now command the respect of the world. That happened with hard work and a national will to become a major exporter of quality products.
Korea is also ahead of the US on many technological fronts. Free wi-fi is ubiquitous. Seoul’s subway system is a showcase of safety, cleanliness and modernity. Bullet trains link the country. You can pay for your Seoul taxi ride by simply touching your wallet to a small device that reads a card many Koreans carry that’s embedded with travel credits.
Here are some other interesting things I noticed in Korea:
- Koreans know how to do highway rest stops. When the crew and I stopped at our first rest stop, we found a business center where helpful staff waited to help anyone use the computers. For free. Fax machines stood at the ready. Bands played live music in front of restaurants. The very clean men’s and ladies’ rooms had as centerpieces enormous gardens with tropical plants, nearly mini-rain forests. But the corker was the batting cage attached to the rest stop. For less than a buck you could take your shot at a dozen fast balls, a great way to work out kinks if you've been driving a long time.
- Every vehicle has a GPS unit, some with displays that resemble video games with representations of actual buildings and roadways with the right number of lanes on the screen. Want to know alternate routes? Push a button and three or four alternatives pop up as a horizontal graph with colors showing the traffic situation on each route. Choose yours, and off you go. Don’t speak Korean? Just say, “Translation,” and the driver dials up an English-speaker on his cell phone who will let him know your destination.
- Going through tollbooths on highways resembles a luge ride—no slowing down here. Cars zip through at 60 miles per hour, and a small chime sounds inside your car indicating you’ve paid your toll.
- The country has gone coffee crazy in the last ten years. Along with Starbucks, a host of local chains dot Seoul as well as other cities, Seattle-style. I don't drink coffee, but I fell in love with a Seoul coffee shop called Cafe Themselves. There’s only one location, and don’t ask me what the name means, but I liked it because it has terrific pastries. Footnote: Many coffee shops don't open until 11 because Koreans don't generally drink coffee in the morning. Want a pastrami sandwich or a traditional, American Sunday brunch? Try Suji’s, restaurants begun by a Korean who’d worked in New York and found herself missing American delis. (The restaurants’ motto: “The next best thing to mom’s home cooking.”)
- The 7/11s offer more than the ones back home. Along with the usual snacks and an ATM, Korean 7/11s sell Australian wine and Chivas Regal. That's what I call full service. Store names, such as Café Themselves, can be amusing to English-speakers. A pharmacy down the street from my hotel in Gwangju was called Happy Virus, just one of the many mangled English words that adorn stores and t-shirts everywhere.
- Tipping is pretty much unknown. Restaurant servers don't expect tips, cabbies don't expect tips, and when I tried to tip a bellman at the Park Hyatt Seoul, he wouldn't accept it.
Batting cages at roadside stops and a no-tipping policy—what a country. Next week’s blog: Food, glorious food!